Melissa Fernandes dips into the bright red world of mouth-watering strawberries and comes away with jams, squashes, memories and calories!
The strawberry plant is a native of North America. Europeans first discovered strawberries in 1588 in America. Since the fruit was easily accessible and abundant in the wild, the local Americans did not cultivate it commercially till a demand was raised by European settlers. Strawberries can be cultivated in areas with temperatures between 1 and 300C.
Strawberries are a member of the Rosaceae family (roses are part of this family too). Strawberries are not really fruits, but fleshy red outgrowths that hold the strawberry flower, which is why strawberries are also known as 'false fruits'. In ancient Europe and France, the strawberry root, leaf and fruit were used for medical treatments.
From a distance the strawberry fields in Panchgani, Mahabaleshwar looked plain and leafy green with tiny trees scattered across acres of land. As I walked closer, bright red pearls started to appear in between the glistening leaves and in no time at all, I was amidst dozens of trees laden with juicy, red, bulbous strawberries!
I was on a trip to Panchgani to go strawberry picking! I wasn't too worried about the April sun that was beating down upon me. All I cared about was picking the strawberries and stuffing my face with the delicious, freshly-picked fruits. And let me tell you, they do taste different.
On this farm, which belongs to Mapro, the strawberry plants are really small and grow to a height of 25cms only. The fruits grow close to the ground and are borne in clusters under the leaves. I saw two really interesting things - the soil is covered with thick black plastic sheets and watermelons and spring onions grow alongside the strawberries!
When I checked with the locals they said the plastic sheets are used to prevent evaporation, keep the soil moist, help the soil suck in water from the ground and prevent the strawberries from coming in contact with the soil and getting dirty. The watermelons and spring onions are planted to make the most out of the empty spaces between the strawberry trees.
My two-hour trip to the field could not have ended on a sweeter note. We were taken to the food court where I gorged on sliced strawberries dipped in chocolate, freshly cut strawberries mixed with fresh cream, strawberry bhel, strawberry milkshake and spoonfuls of delicious strawberry jam.
At the food court, I also witnessed the Strawberry Festival organised in association with the All India Strawberry Growers Association. The festival gave me an opportunity to eat some more strawberries and also enjoy performances by local artisans who used the lezim (a type of percussion instrument) and the dhol to create a mystical evening. Over 250 farmers from Mahabaleshwar participated in this festival.
From the food court I proceeded to the Mapro food processing factory in Wai. This was my first time at such a unit and I was really excited to see how jams, jellies, weets, syrups, crushes and squashes of different varieties are produced. Like I've often seen on Discovery Travel and Living, I was asked to wear a disposable cap before I stepped into the factory. The first large unit I visited happened to be a freezer filled with frozen fruits. With the temperature in the freezer maintained at around -18 degrees Celsius, I was frozen to the bone by the time it was time for me to step out and see the pulping process. Here the fruits are pulped and extracted to make a huge variety of products. A vat stood in one corner making the sugar syrup, which was carried through pipes to different areas of the factory.
It was interesting to see a large number of local and tribal people working at the factory. Though the production process is now mechanised, a large amount of locals are still employed at the factory.
HOW JAM IS MADE!
The process starts with extracting fruit pulp. This is then mixed with sugar and fruit pectin. Fruit pectin is a compound found in fruits. This is used as a gelling agent. Next, the mass is boiled in a vacuum till the water content evaporates. Once it is brought to a boil, citric acid is added. This works as a preservative. The jam is then filled into clean glass bottles using an automated filling machine or is manually packed into plastic bottles. The bottles are then sealed and allowed to cool. The bottles are packed into boxes and sent to the warehouse from where they are dispatched to various cities.